BJP SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED
A belated spark in the Congress is unlikely to dent the BJP’s prospects
The occasion was the launch of the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra on October 1, under the leadership of deputy chief minister Nitin Patel, from the birthplace of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Karamsad, 70 km from Ahmedabad. The yatra was said to be a retort to the challenge Rahul Gandhi had thrown a few days before during his Gujarat visit, questioning the BJP’s development claims and mocking it saying, “Vikas gando thayo che (development has gone mad [under the BJP in Gujarat]).”
BJP president Amit Shah, flagging off the yatra, delivers a powerful speech and reiterates that the BJP will win 150 seats in the coming polls scheduled for December this year. Shah pulls up the state’s development figures from during the Congress’s rule till 1995 and under the BJP in the past two decades. The BJP’s record appears many times better, like in per capita income which has jumped from Rs 13,000-plus per annum in 1995 to Rs 1.41 lakh-plus in 2016 (the jump is striking even if we consider that the country’s economy also grew exponentially during the same period).
And yet a lingering doubt remains about the BJP’s claim of winning a thumping majority or even a comfortable victory. At the same meeting, a few Patel youths present in the crowd chant anti-BJP slogans. The followers of the pro-Patel reservation leader, Hardik Patel, are quickly whisked away.
Clearly, no one believes the BJP will lose the elections, but the triumphant winds blowing strong till a month ago have slowed down. A temporary bottleneck called the GST, which has badly affected businesses in industrial areas like Surat, Rajkot and Jamnagar, is also dissuading state BJP workers from chanting their new slogan, “Aa vakhat 150 (This time 150 seats),” too loudly. (In 2012, the party had won 115 of the 182 assembly seats.) The BJP had coined it soon after the 325-seat win in Uttar Pradesh and chanted it with delight till August-end.
As the BJP prepares for battle to retain Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home bastion, the chill among the ranks is also due to Hardik’s continued rants. A section of the Patel youth seems to be with him; this from a community that has been a pillar of the BJP in Gujarat.
Hardik has reportedly struck a deal with the Congress party for a number of seats to his supporters. The state government, in its turn, had promised a body to explore economic and social benefits to the 51 per cent per cent upper castes of the state (a majority of whom are Patels). The government also promised a commission to fix responsibility for the alleged police atrocities on Patel youth during their 2015 pro-reservation stir. Gujarat
chief minister Vijay Rupani says Hardik has lost his constituency. “He has made his political ambitions clear by reaching out to the Congress. So he’s lost his position as campaigner for Patel rights. He has no ground left,” says the CM.
Meanwhile, in the opposition Congress party, things seem to be looking up. Till recently a faction-ridden camp fighting to preserve its political identity in the state, the Congress has started getting some traction among the people as the response to Rahul Gandhi’s Gujarat visit last week showed. In fact, the exit of state unit chief Shankersinh Vaghela—who crossvoted in the Rajya Sabha election of Ahmed Patel—has strangely united the party. Though Rahul didn’t put up a great show in public meetings during his Gujarat Navsarjan Yatra, he got a better response than most pundits expected.
As the two parties prepare for the final push, Gujarat presents a most interesting electoral scenario. For PM Modi, it
is a crucial battle that will have a bearing on his bid for a second term in the 2019 parliamentary polls. He must not just win Gujarat, but win it by a good margin. For the Congress, this is an opportunity to upset Modi and Shah’s applecart.
And so both parties are preparing for a never-before battle in the western state. Much, however, will still depend on caste equations. For example, Hardik’s hobnobbing with the Congress could shift castes such as the OBC Kshatriyas—who have their own protests against the Patels getting reservation benefits—to the BJP camp. Plus, how many of the Patel votes Hardik can swing is also a question.
The Saffron Blanket
The saffron party believes that by seeking a debate on development Rahul Gandhi has played into their hands. Says party spokesperson Bharat Pandya, “If good governance is the issue, there is not a single parameter where the BJP doesn’t outdo the Congress. This debate is right up our street.” Against the Congress slogan of ‘Vikas gando thayo che’, the BJP has coined its own ‘Hun chun vikas, hun chu Gujarat (I am development, I am Gujarat)’. The party has also prepared a list of at least 100 government parameters which compare the progress during the BJP’s rule with that during the Congress’s time. On the booth management side too, key strategist Amit Shah has tightened things up. Some 50,000 workers have been appointed to look after 50,000 booths. Plus, there are the 500 party vistaraks at the booth level.
The party’s feedback exercise regarding ticket selection was completed by September 24. It was during this exercise that the party realised the negative impact of GST on industry and the job scenario. The state government immediately got in touch with the Centre and organised meetings between small businessmen and the central and state tax officials in most districts. CM Rupani says “even district collectors participated in the meetings to understand the problems of small businessmen and allay their fears”. However, as a party leader pointed out, “Much will depend on what the GST council does in the coming days.” The nervousness in the BJP ranks is clearly visible.
The new caution is best reflected in the fact that it has drafted Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman, Narendra Singh Tomar, Jitendra Singh and P.P. Chaudhary into the campaign. They will work under Union finance minister Arun Jaitley. Bhupendra Yadav is the new general secretary in-charge of the state.
A Steady Hand
With infighting a thing of the past, the Congress party has gained some vigour. In fact, there is a spring in its step today, mostly due to the discomfiture of the BJP over issues like GST, price rise and the job crisis. Former Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, who was given charge of Gujarat early this year, is also bringing all his experience to bear. What the Congress needs is a viable face to pit against CM Rupani. After Vaghela’s departure, it has two options—state chief Bharatsinh Solanki, the son of former chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki, and senior leader Shaktisinh Goel.
Meanwhile, for the first time, the Congress is also concentrating on booth management, taking a cue from its BJP rivals. During his Gujarat yatra, Rahul held a series of meeting with local leaders, with his secretary taking down notes. Gehlot says they “are leaving no stone unturned. The people are yearning for a change in Gujarat”. The Congress has said all this before every election in the past 15 years, and then lost it at the hustings. This time, too, it looks an uphill battle for the party.
“By questioning our performance, Rahul shifted the poll focus to PM’s development agenda. It will cost him.” VIJAY RUPANI Chief minister
Rahul Gandhi with supporters during his visit to Jamnagar on Oct. 3
ROLLING ON Amit Shah flags off the ‘Gujarat Gaurav Yatra’ on Oct. 1